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How This Zombie Fungus Turns Cicadas into Horror-Movie Sex Bots


Researchers explore how an amphetamine and a psychedelic help parasitic fungi spread their spores through insects’ doomed mating attempts  By Rachel Nuwer on May 27, 2021

Matt Kasson, a forest pathologist and mycologist at West Virginia University, has spent the past week chasing cicadas across northern Virginia. Each night he has watched pale nymphs emerge from the earth like ghostly apparitions and then make their way into trees, where they will soon molt to become a winged adults.

Both the cicadas and Kasson have been waiting for this moment—but not for the same reason. After 17 years underground, billions of Brood X periodical cicadas, as the insects are known, are emerging into the light across the eastern U.S. this year to find mates and launch the next generation. Kasson, on the other hand, has come for an equally awe-inspiring yet very different facet of one of nature’s most epic life cycles: “the big fungal show,” as he puts it. It is one wild performance in which a parasitic fungus turns some of the insects into singled-minded sex machines—after causing their genitals to fall off. The phenomenon is well documented, but scientists such as Kasson are working to figure out how the freaky fungus hijacks its host.

An estimated 3,000 species of cicadas live around the world, and a diversity of parasitic fungi have evolved alongside them. Kasson studies one exceptionally peculiar species called Massospora cicadina. It only infects so-called periodical cicadas such as Brood X—those that emerge every 13 or 17 years.

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